Driver keeps delivering on tricky route

CHARLESTON(AP) — Franklin Vance’s delivery route isn’t easy, and he’ll be the first to tell you so.

“When I’m off it takes four guys to cover my route,” Vance, a FedEx Ground truck driver, said in between deliveries at the Patrick Street Plaza shopping center in Charleston. “I average 50 to 60 miles a day on my route, but I’m in and out of all these tight alleys, with vehicles, trees and everything else to dodge.”

The arduous route may have helped propel Vance to his position as one of the best commercial truck drivers in the state.

Raised in Mingo County and living in Chapmanville, Vance represented West Virginia for the second year in a row at the National Truck Driving Championships, an annual championship held to see who is the best (and safest) commercial truck driver in the land.

The championships, held Aug. 9-12 in Orlando, Florida, feature nine different vehicle classes drivers can compete in, with Vance competing in the step van category. The winners are determined by who can accumulate the most points in the three competition categories: a written exam, a pre-trip inspection and the driving skills challenge.

Vance finished 27th out of the 50-man field he competed in. In 2016, he finished 15th.

Even if he didn’t reach the summit of the national championships, Vance still finished first among step van drivers in West Virginia’s state truck driving championships, held June 17 in Buckhannon.

The driving portion, Vance said, is his strength. Competitors have to maneuver around obstacles, go safely around a tight curb and run over small pieces of tape to demonstrate accuracy.

Vance said competitors in his class were in a P700 step van for this year’s competition, meaning he had to adjust his habits from the larger and heavier P1000 step van he delivers with.

“That hurt me because I’m used to having the longer truck to back up, so I have to make sure I’m not stopping way too soon,” he said. “Your tail swing, turn radius and everything else is different (from the P1000).”

Despite the adjustment, Vance said he easily gathered the necessary practice reps from all the delivery miles under his belt.

“When I’m out here every day, I can put the course out here in reality,” he said.

The written exam was a different story.

“It kind of whipped my butt,” he said.

The written exam focuses on trucking rules, regulations and history. A good portion of this year’s exam focused on handling hazardous materials, Vance said.

“You have to read the whole book on the rules to make sure you don’t miss anything,” he said.

The pre-trip portion, which tests if drivers can spot defects or issues with their trucks before starting a route, fell somewhere in the middle for Vance. Competitors need a careful eye for it, as organizers have hidden fake bags of marijuana and fake pistols in trucks in previous competitions, Vance said. Those violations are crucial to spot, he said, because they carry harsh penalties in real life too.

FedEx as a whole has had a large presence in the competition, with 173 drivers representing its subsidiaries in 2017 and all 50 states featuring a FedEx representative, according to a news release. Vance’s employer, Robert Young Trucking, is a contracted service provider for FedEx Ground.

FedEx goes all in for the competition, according to Vance, and FedEx’s website says an initiative called “the Chairman’s Challenge” encourages its drivers “to demonstrate their skills and professionalism while promoting the importance of safe driving at all FedEx companies.”

Vance said he has been driving his notorious route for FedEx Ground for four years and has accumulated roughly 400,000 miles with the company.

Vance’s route starts in Institute, goes through Dunbar and Charleston before ending in Sissonville. He averages roughly 85 stops and 250 package deliveries per workday, with the possibilities ranging from a quick one-package drop at Sally Beauty to hauling a deep freezer up to a third-floor apartment.

The top priority for any truck driver is to keep people safe, Vance said, which he does by “looking everywhere all the time.” Participating in the championships enhances that reputation, which may sway more customers to use FedEx, he added.

Vance acquired his passion for truck driving from his father, Robert Vance, and has nine professional years of experience under his belt. During that time, the industry has changed as consumers clamor for products to be delivered straight to their home, according to Vance.

“The industry just keeps growing, and everybody is ordering online,” he said. “(Deliveries) are shifting from businesses to residential customers.”

Even if the industry shift means more tricky residential deliveries — Vance recalls recently delivering a stair stepper up a hill to a house without a driveway — he said he’s up for the challenge.

“I enjoy it,” Vance said. “There are days where I’m not too happy, but for the most part I have fun.”